He moves so much more slowly now. Over seventy years of burning bright, full of energy, laughter, and orneriness, gone after this last series of mini strokes. His frail frame slowly shuffles along. His loud voice that once carried across a store now quieted to a whisper I have to lean in to hear. I slow my steps trying not be obvious. His body is failing and there are days I can see his mind is following but the flicker of his old pride remains. I would not strip that dignity from him if I had to crawl behind him.
We are here to see his brother, his baby brother. The spoiled one. The one my grandmother strained soup for well into his twenties. He lies here with the possibility of renal failure looming over the family. These prognoses no longer shock. Oh they still hurt and rip at your heart, but no, not shock. They are hitting this extended family like shrapnel from the bomb of aging. They come weekly now.
Not long ago I sat for hours by his bedside in a similar institution. Slowly the seconds turned to minutes which gave way to hours. I learned to live with my heart constantly half way to my throat and a stomach waiting for the moment it was destined to drop. Strange enough, I found a peace within this abnormal way to spend my days. I found stillness.
As we enter the lobby, the old flirt rises up as he finds the prettiest girl to ask directions to the ICU. His voice once rich with charm and persuasion now trickles out. She is kind and gentile and makes him smile. I am so grateful for that gift.
Our pilgrimage leads us to a darkened room with an old man lying in a bed surround by wires and machines. He is so small. I remember him when he was so strong. He could easily throw me over his head. I remember when they were both tall and strong standing in their mother's yard telling tall tales, gossip, and memories of youth. Little did they know that time was their youth extended.
His little brother sleeps, pain evident on his face. He eases into the chair pulled close to the bed. His wrinkled, veined, and bruised hand closes over his little brother's ever so slightly less wrinkled, veined, and bruised hand. Soon the younger man wakes and realizes more family have come to sit vigil at his bed. There are jokes and teasing but they are just so quiet now.
The hours slow spin away. They talk of love. They talk of life. They talk of everything that truly matters and it isn't what most people would think.
I sit silently, perhaps even somewhat translucent, in the corner, knitting. I don't know if they can even see me anymore because they are so deeply involved with themselves and their relationship. This is how it should be.
My part is to sit. I sit and listen. I hold space for these men as they near the end. I bear witness to their lives, what it was, what it is, and what it has meant to them. I am the conscious witness taking in all that knowledge and experience, and it means so very much. This is my job more often than I though possible of late.
We need to be those witnesses. We need to hold this space. Shying away from death and sickness leaves us shallow, not finished. We need to experience these moments of heart rending, tragic beauty to acquire the depth needed to live a full life. Otherwise we are just skipping along the surface never really diving into the depth of emotion and feeling that is there. Many years ago I held my brother's hand as he passed from this life. You may think it strange but I can attest that moment, that experience remains one of the most beautiful in my memory.
Even with this knowledge and realization, it is still so hard. I have excused myself to the bathroom when my breath catches and I know the fullness of my emotion and impending grief threatens to swamp me. Oh it is hard. But I gather myself and walk back to my chair, my part.
For he is my father and I will hold this space for him.